Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor in the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, writes about issues affecting women and social media. Her book “This Feed Is on Fire: Why Social Media Is Toxic for Women and Girls — And How We Can Reclaim It” will be published by Alcove Press in 2024. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
On Thursday, Elon Musk’s ownership of Twitter entered a terrifying new phase when he began wielding his power to censor the press. The Twitter accounts of several journalists who have covered Musk critically recently — in other words, done their jobs — were suspended.
In tweets, Musk accused the journalists of violating the platform’s policy against doxing — or posting private information online — by sharing his “exact real-time” location. But none of the banished reporters — including CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan and The Washington Post’s Drew Harwell — appeared to have done so. Musk and Twitter didn’t respond to CNN’s requests for comment.
If it weren’t obvious before, the latest moves make clear that Musk tends to run this company the way dictators run their states: by making decisions that serve his personal interests rather than those of the public, and capriciously getting rid of people who stand in his way. That’s why tech workers and journalists who have lost their jobs in the past few weeks should come together to create non-profit social networks designed to serve the public interest.
For years, so many people around the world have relied on Twitter to function as a town square — a space for people to debate issues openly. Of course, only 23% of Americans are on Twitter and of those who use the platform, the top 25% of users by tweet volume produce 97% of tweets, according to the Pew Research Center. Yet the conversations that happen on Twitter seem to heavily influence what reporters and others talk about offline, so these users have an outsize influence on the public debate.
But recall that last month, before these journalists were de-platformed, Musk — who describes himself as a free speech absolutist — suggested that he could sue activists who he believes caused advertiser boycotts of Twitter. If users can’t hold those in power accountable, then they can’t have debates about how to fix the problems with society — including, of course, the issues created by the very platforms they’re having those debates on.
A healthy town square should also be a place where people can find reliable information. But researchers at Tufts University recently found that tweets refuting hate and misinformation were “an order of magnitude greater” on Twitter before Musk took over.
Twitter is also a critical platform for grassroots journalists to share their reporting on issues that impact the welfare of people in their communities — especially since so many now work on a shoestring as advertising dollars have moved from local journalism to online platforms. So make no mistake: The fact that reporters can simply be booted from the platform if they cause displeasure to Musk is a danger to us all.
The account suspensions came on the heels of Twitter’s announcement on Monday that it was disbanding its Trust and Safety Council — a group of outside experts that advised the company on issues like human rights, child sexual exploitation and mental health.
It’s clear that we can’t rely on Musk’s Twitter to provide a safe, open forum. We need new, non-profit social networks run by boards responsible for considering the public’s interest when making critical decisions about things like content moderation and community standards. And many of the people who have these skills have just been laid off from their jobs. In addition to the mass exodus from Twitter since Musk’s takeover, there have been layoffs at a number of tech and journalism companies lately, including Facebook and CNN, with more coming at The Washington Post. Some of these professionals should work together to create new social platforms designed to provide the truly open town hall we so desperately need.
Musk’s latest power moves are nothing short of dangerous. Recently unemployed tech and journalism workers should take them as a rallying call to unite to create new, healthier online spaces. We have nothing to lose except our dependence on a mercurial, egotistical czar to set the terms of our public debates.